Touch: Notes on the Thought of Luce Irigaray

Key Concept

Image by Mojo Wang

Image by Mojo Wang

Touch is at the heart of Luce Irigaray’s dialectic of relations with the other. It is a gesture that responds to the call of the (m)other.1 The dialectic of touch is based upon the gesture of respect and reverence towards the source or the gesture of violence if it seeks to appropriate the subjectivity of the other.2 To quote Irigaray, ‘Touching or being touched concern(s) an intimacy that cannot be approached with the hand.’3 It is a question of intimacy and one can develop intimacy through touching each other internally or intersubjectively. Touch also implies being in contact tactfully. It sets certain boundaries and limits in human relationships. It requires mutual consent. To borrow from Irigaray, ‘To touch one another in intersubjectivity, it is necessary that two subjects agree to relationship and that the possibility to consent exists.’4 Unlike the gaze, touch should not arrest or grasp the subject which prevents the economy of subjectivity.5 In this post I will illustrate Irigaray’s poetics of touch through a reading of the work of Toni Morrison.

The act of touch in the works of Irigaray is an expression of infinite possibilities. According to Irigaray, touching continues to be touching as long as it does not capture or annihilate the other’s subjective autonomy.6 Touch is not merely a matter of mediated relations with the outside world, but it is also a matter of ‘auto-affection’ which is a way of being in touch with one’s own self ‘with a positive feeling’.7 However, like the rite de passage touch should also pave our way from ‘self-affection to affection for the other and with the other, and also lead us toward a possible Other’.8 Touch should perform the role of a guide along the path of becoming divine, attaining wisdom, finding and recovering our lost selves. Our relationships are prone to violence if there is a lack of immediate touch in our mediations.8 If touch is lacking in our mediations or relationships, it can take violent expression in forms of ‘hurting, cutting, striking, or dazzling’.8 Lack of respect for the identity and subjectivity of the other ‘amounts to a kind of murder: a spiritual murder, the most serious murder and also the most serious suicide’.11

These are some of the poetics of touch in the corpus of Irigaray. In my work I argue that they offer a key to our understanding of touch as either a recuperative gesture or a source of violence between the perpetrators/predators and their victims/prey in Toni Morrison’s fiction. Morrison draws her readers into a relationship of ‘call and response’ between her narrator and the reader. She encourages her reader to interact freely and engage in dialogue. Like Irigaray, she defines touch not only as constitutive of physical relationship based upon consent, but also in terms of a tactile and reciprocal experience in the act of communication or understanding a work of art which calls for a tactile response.12 Kelly Ives brings in Roland Barthes in her discussion on the aesthetics of reading whether the text is a painting, film, magazine, photograph or a theatrical performance. She argues that the reader derives pleasure from the text when his/her ‘look’ is aligned with that of the author.13

To extend this argument one could postulate that the pleasure of the text can be derived when the aesthesis of the reader is aligned with that of the author of the story. This adds to the aesthetic dimension of reading literature not merely as a scopic experience but a tactile one as well. For example, in Morrison’s novel Jazz the locus of narrative experience between the narrator and the reader is based upon the desire to touch and be touched. The narrator’s art of storytelling in Jazz highlights the importance of ‘tact’ as she/he waits the moment when the reader’s tactile experience of holding the book in their hands transforms itself into response. To borrow the expression from Irigaray, the book demands a touching upon from the reader which proffers his/her attentiveness (rather than appropriation), ‘including carnal attentiveness’.14 The narrative intention behind the plea is to draw the reader to the site of communication, to awaken the reader to an exchange in which the act of giving shape to word and meaning takes place as it were between two bodies.15 It is this moment of awakening in which the subject addresses himself/herself to an addressee in a process of reciprocal exchange that defines both of them.16

The narrator does not literally touch by grasping or making physical contact. He or she can touch metaphorically by way of addressing, sending, receiving and opening himself/herself to the touch of the reader. As Irigaray reminds us, ‘For there to be an exchange, it is essential that the other touches us, particularly through words.’17The experience of reading and writing is a matter of tact. It is an experience of touching and being touched which is like the touch of the bodies – the body of lovers. Like Irigaray, Morrison suggests that the experience of reading a text can be sensuous and erotic. The holding of the book in the hands is like the gift which touches. However, touch is not sufficient in itself. It is always in need of the other and respect for the other’s body is the condition of all touching. Real touch is one that is restrained and nonappropriating. Touch interrupts the bodily integrity of the other if it violates its entity. Bodies resist the approach of an unwelcome touch. They resist the violent appropriating touch. The act of touch should be, as the narrator in Jazz implies, ‘a reassurance, not an affront or a nuisance’.18

The narrative language of Jazz uses a vocabulary of (con)tact: touching, caressing, fingering, looking, listening and releasing. We see a similar desire to touch being reflected in the lives of Morrison’s characters who seek to touch and address each other. They touch and address themselves by being touched and addressed by the others. They build and re-build their relationship with each other by way of touching. When they are not responded to in kind they find their relations being disrupted. What they need is touch as the compassionate and healing medium which restores the normative image of the body and its orientation in relation to the other. Touch confirms immediacy of presence. Like the appreciative gaze, touch makes us aware of our corporeal existence-our embodiment in the mood of acceptance and justification. Drew Leder succinctly phrases the defining moment of touch in which ‘I feel confirmed in my body by the lover’s touch.’19 Touch is the medium of subjectivity in the corpus of both Irigaray and Morrison. In the absence of (maternal) touch, Morrison’s characters like Joe and Violet Trace find an emotional vacuum, an inside nothing. They try to fill out the gaps left in their lives through the medium of touch. It is this desire to touch that involves the trace of the absent (m)other in their lives which unmakes, makes and remakes the stuff of their tragic lives.

Jaleel Akhtar is a DPhil student in American History, Culture and Literature at the University of Sussex. His book ‘Dismemberment in the Fiction of Toni Morrison’ is forthcoming by Cambridge Scholars Publishers.

Show 19 footnotes

  1. Luce Irigaray (2008) Sharing the World (London: Continuum) 20.
  2. Irigaray (2008), above n 1, 20.
  3. Luce Irigaray (2009) Toward a Divine in the Feminine. In: Gillian Howie and J’annine Jobling (Eds) Women and the Divine: Touching Transcendence. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) 23.
  4. Luce Irigaray (2004) The Wedding Between the Body and the Language. In: Luce Irigaray (ed) Key Writings (London: Continuum) 20.
  5. Irigaray (2008), above n 1, 128.
  6. Irigaray (2004), above n 4, 75.
  7. Irigaray (2009), above n 3, 16.
  8. Irigaray (2009), above n 3, 24.
  9. Irigaray (2009), above n 3, 24.
  10. Irigaray (2009), above n 3, 24.
  11. Irigaray (2009), above n 3, 15.
  12. Irigaray (2004), above n 4, 18.
  13. Kelly Ives (2008) Luce Irigaray: Lips, Kissing and the Politics of Sexual Difference (Kent: Crescent Moon) 39.
  14. Luce Irigaray (1996) I Love to You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History. In: Alison Martin (Trans) (New York: Routledge) 124.
  15. Irigaray (1996), above n 14, 125.
  16. Irigaray (1996), above n 14, 126.
  17. Luce Irigaray (2002) The Way of Love. In: Heidi Bostic and Stephen Pluhacek (Trans) (Continuum: London) 18.
  18. Toni Morrison (1992) Jazz (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 27.
  19. Drew Leder (1990) The Absent Body (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 97.
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